Saturday, 10 December 2016

Saints of all Sorts

There’s a new little man in my life. Not so new, actually, since I purchased him at a Thrift Store. Take a look at him:

Not so good-looking maybe, but he has character, don’t you think? I’ve named him Antoine. Antoine is a santon, a “little saint”, part of a nativity set, and he was created in Provence, France. I have no idea how old he is, but he makes my heart sing. It doesn’t take a lot to get me excited, does it?

Antoine reminds me of the feeling I had the first time I saw a nativity scene. I was a little girl when my dad took me to a nativity pageant at a big old church downtown. I was enthralled! All those kids, dressed up, enacting the original story of Christmas – it was magic. In our church, Christmas was a fairly somber affair, celebrated with extra (looooong) church services. A concession was made to music: perhaps the choir would sing, or the congregation would get to sing a Christmas carol instead of a dirge-like Psalm. But decorations? A creche? Candles on an advent wreath? Instruments other than an organ? A nativity pageant? Absolutely not. It smacked of idol-worship. No smells and bells and eye-candy in our church. (We did get a book, a bag of candy, and an orange on Christmas Day, so don’t feel too sorry for me. And fortunately, things have changed in that church of my childhood.)

But unfortunately for me, a visual learner, there was little to attract the eye of a child. Perhaps that is why, when our first child was old enough to love stories, we bought a nativity set. It was one crafted from olive wood in Israel – a little wobbly, and it was hard to distinguish the shepherd from Joseph, but oh well! We used it to tell the Christmas story to our children. That was how nativity scenes, or creches, originated: St. Francis of Assisi posed a mother, a child, and a donkey in a cave, then called his people together and used the scene as a sermon illustration.

The RS and I are now in possession of more than 2 dozen nativity sets that we have collected, originating in places as far-flung as Peru and Vietnam. Each of them is special in its own way. They are visual expressions of the way that people understand the Christmas story in a manner that makes sense to their culture. As the song says, “Some people see him [Jesus] lily white” but for sure not all do. From the original story in Bethlehem which has spread around the world, the Nativity story has something for everyone, believer or not, to reflect on.

We like all our nativity scenes for different reasons. There’s the set that our kids brought home from the Ivory Coast after working a stint there. I especially love the woman bringing a bowl of fruit on her head to the Holy Family.  How like a woman to know what a new mother  would appreciate after going through labour and delivery.

This scene, made in Peru, is a recent acquisition, but it’s already one of our favourites. Mary and Joseph, nestled securely in the hands of the Creator, are clad in the garb of the common folk, common folk like you and I. Two thousand years after the fact, we know that the peace experienced in this sweetly sleeping family will be mightily disturbed in the days to come. There’s much to reflect on and think about in that simple image.

There’s one from Mexico made of shiny tin. All the pieces fold flat and fit into a little metal box, perfect for travelers at Christmas. But perfect, as well, perhaps, for migrants working through the Christmas season in fields and factories and packing houses processing foods which will show up on our festive table. This little nativity set brought with them from home will help them to celebrate the birth of a child who came to preach hope to the poor, to set the prisoner free.

And then there are the sets Al has carved: one for each of our children, each different, all from wood so our grandchildren can touch and experience them. Here are three of them:

Al's latest project is a modern nativity: Mary and Joseph as street people. Baby Jesus is nestled in a banana box, and he is being visited and adored by real shepherds – like Desmond Tutu – and wise people – like the Dalai Lama – from around the world. This one sometimes shakes people up when they see it – and so it should. The nativity has turned the world upside down.

(did you notice the crow guarding the baby?! The dog is Sepphie, our daughter's fur baby)
 So my santon Antoine joins the crowd now. In Provence, the nativity scenes feature not only Mary, Joseph and Jesus, but also all the locals who come to adore him – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker and a host of others. Antoine the shepherd is hand-crafted by a santonnier, a local artisan (he has the sticker to prove it). A true proven├žal scene is never bought "ready made" but is constructed little by little. Ever since I learned about santons, I’ve been wanting a set of my own. And there stood Antoine, adrift  in a sea of Christmas kitsch at Value Village. He was mine! He’ll need a village around him, and a stable where he can visit the Holy Family. I know a wood-carver who can help me out with that!

If you live in the Comox Valley, you can see a display of nativity sets next weekend at our church, Comox Valley Presbyterian. Check out the schedule at

Here’s where you can hear the song “Some People See Him Lily White” as sung by James Taylor